Friday, October 31, 2014

Can You Just Get On An Untrained Horse And Ride It?

It's a favored western trope. The cowboy ropes the wild horse, puts a saddle on it, gets on and rides off into the sunset.

How realistic is that?

With a horse that has never been handled - not very. In reality, when cowboys did that, they would have to deal with the animal's violent objections, which often involved somebody getting hurt.

With a domestic horse that has a calmer temperament, has been treated well and handled her entire life, then it actually is possible. Colored cobs (what Americans call gypsy vanners) and some lines of Quarter Horse are known for being "born broke." I personally know a mare who's first ride was a random teenager and who's second ride was a total beginner (She was so good her owner did not know she was not trained).

Most horses, however, will show some degree of annoyance when saddled and ridden for the first time, ranging from trying to walk away from the tack to violent bucking. So, if you want to use this trope?

With a wild horse, make sure you talk about how difficult a task it is and how the horse needs to be "bucked out" and honestly...wild horse breaking generally involves letting the horse be mad until it's too tired to keep fighting and behaves.

With a domestic horse, make mention that the animal has a good temperament, or is from "good lines" that are known for being easy to train.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What Is Grass Sickness?

Grass sickness is a nasty disease that mostly affects animals in northern Europe, especially Great Britain. It affects all equines, not just horses. (A similar disease effects rabbits and hares).

Grass sickness generally affects younger horses between 2 and 7 years. Older horses appear to develop resistance to the disease. It almost always affects horses on pasture, hence the name.

We have no idea what causes it. It might be a deficiency (it seems to be associated with high nitrogen contact of soil) or, the current lead theory, a soil bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. It's not contagious, but several cases may occur if multiple horses are in the same pasture.

It causes partial or complete paralysis of the digestive tract and is almost universally fatal in the acute form. The symptoms of acute grass sickness include constipation, a distended stomach and partially digested food coming out of the nose - and the horse usually dies within a couple of days.

Subacute grass sickness is less severe, but is still fatal. Chronic grass sickness, which has symptoms that include rapid weight loss, is survivable and some cases can be treated with nursing and special high energy feed.

Grass sickness is horrible and there's no way to prevent it other than not using pasture associated with the disease for grazing horses in spring and summer. (US people, yes, grass sickness is all but unknown in the US, with only a very occasional case diagnosed and as it can sometimes be confused with other forms of colic...)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Are Chestnut Horses Crazy?

Nope. Pure myth. I've met some crazy and "hot headed" chestnuts and also some calm ones, including a mare who let a beginner ride her the second time she was ever ridden. The best trail horse I've ever ridden was also chestnut, and her only temperament flaw was the exact opposite - she was just a bit lazy.

The only possibly supported link between temperament and color in horses is a possibility that pinto horses may be calmer than solid horses due to the link with domestication syndrome.

So, if you're going for a ride and they offer you a chestnut - don't worry. They're not crazy.

In her Paladin's Legacy series Elizabeth Moon assigns a similar superstition about gray or white horses to one of the cultures in her books. So, when worldbuilding, do think whether people in your world have ideas about specific horse colors. But be aware that if your horses are at all realistic, those ideas should be demonstrated to be very, very false.

I mentioned the mare who let a beginner ride her when she wasn't even trained? Here she is.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Why Do Knights Ride White Horses?

In video, this is sometimes an example of white hats versus black hats - in early westerns, especially black and white, the filmmakers would put white hats on the good cowboys and black hats on the evil ones as a quick visual distinguisher that appears tacky today.

But white or white-looking grey horses are special in fantasy fiction. Gandalf rides Shadowfax. The Companions in Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar are white. Over and over again, western authors put the special hero, the king, etc on a white horse.


Plain and simple, white horses have a mythological significance all over the world. The Celtic mother goddess is sometimes portrayed as a white mare. Pegasus is also white and Odin's eight-legged steed Sleipnir is generally considered to be grey.

White horses have been sacrificed and used in divination ceremonies. At some Hindu weddings the groom arrives riding a white horse and accompanied by the youngest male member of his family (No matter how young). In this case, the white horse symbolizes the hoped-for fertility of the match.

So, the plain truth of it is that white horses are a trope because they have always been a trope - and there's nothing wrong with using it. Just be aware that it is a trope (and therefore ripe to be subverted).

A true white Thoroughbred, courtesy of Kersti Nebelsiek.

Monday, October 27, 2014

What is a zebrass?

A zebrass, zedonk or zedonkey is the cross between a zebra and a donkey.

Unlike with horses, it is possible to breed a zebra hinny (the chromosome numbers are closer together). Additionally, interbreeding between zebras and wild asses, despite the fact that the offspring are not fertile, has been witnessed in parts of Africa where their ranges overlap. It's possible that this may have given people the initial idea to create mules. (Horses and donkeys do not have naturally overlapping ranges).

Like zorses, zedonks resemble the non-zebra parent in body type, but have zebra stripes. Zebrasses have been intentionally bred as work animals, partly in the hope that they would inherit the zebra's resistance to sleeping sickness.

A "zedonk" at Colchester Zoo. Source: sannse via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 24, 2014

What is a zorse?

Some years ago one zoo in the UK sold another a surplus miniature pony for the pregnant zoo.

When the second zoo discovered the pony was pregnant, they called the first zoo.

The first zoo's response: She can't be. We don't have a stallion on the premises.

The foal came out with stripes.

Apparently, the first zoo didn't consider that she'd got in with the zebras...

A zorse is a zebra horse hybrid. Zorses are generally small and often lack any kind of prominent wither. Like zebras (which are, after all, wild animals) they're known for being hard to train - although zorses have successfully competed in the show ring both under saddle and in harness, over fences and even in dressage. They definitely resemble horses more than zebras.

However, zorses are readily distinguishable from pure horses because they always have some degree of striping. Specifically, they have black stripes on a base of a familiar horse color, such as this bay or dun zorse:

(Source: Kumana @ Wild Equines).

If the zorse has pinto markings, the stripes do not carry on across the markings and they can be more subtle, but a zorse will always have stripes.

Sometimes the offspring of a zebra and a pony is called a zony.

Zebras have a much different chromosome number from horses - horses have 64 and zebra species range from 32 and 46. Like mules, zorses are infertile. Also, because of the much greater chromosome difference compared to horses and asses, zebra hinnies are almost never produced. When they are, they seldom survive to adulthood. Also, zorses are prone to dwarfism.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What is a hinny?

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse.

A hinny is the opposite - bred from a stallion (male horse) on a jennet/jenny (female donkey).

Hinnies are not always possible to distinguish from mules - if in doubt, the animal is referred to as a mule. They're also considerably rarer because it is, for reasons that are presumably to do with the chromosome numbers, much harder to breed the cross successfully. Mule breeders will generally only make a hinny if they really want a particular cross.

Hinnies tend to look a little bit more like horses than mules do. Anecdotally, some muleskinners claim that you can tell whether an animal is a mule or a hinny by turning them out in a field which has a couple of horses and a couple of donkeys in it - a mule will go hang out with the horses and a hinny will seek out the donkeys.

Mule ears. Just because.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What Is A Mule?

I've mentioned mules before, but I just checked and I haven't fully discussed what a mule actually is.

A mule is the offspring of a mare (female horse) and a jack (male donkey).

Mules have long ears like donkeys and full tails like horses, with a build that falls somewhere between the two. They have scraggly manes (which are generally shaved off).

Many people consider mules superior to horses. They live longer (in England, the phrase "donkey's years" for a long time refers to the long lifespan of burros), are more surefooted, eat about one-third less per day and need a lot less water. (I have personally ridden a mule for several hours in a desert environment without watering it, something I would never dream of doing with a horse). They're also less likely to panic and bolt.

However, mules are slower than horses and have a reputation for being stubborn. My personal, limited experience is that mules are less subtle than horses and will really let you know what they think. They don't have a work ethic that will...okay, let's put it bluntly. Horses will tolerate almost anything you do to them. Mules just won't take your crap.

A horse has 64 chromosomes and a donkey 62. Because of this, mules end up with 63 chromosomes. This renders mules sterile. However, john (male) mules are always castrated early as they can be extremely hard to handle otherwise.

Or more accurately, mules are mostly sterile. There have been a few documented instances of molly mules giving birth, with the most famous being Old Beck who produced several foals including Pat Murphy, Jr., who appeared to be pure horse and had normal fertility. Most recently, in 2007, a molly gave birth unexpectedly on a Denver ranch to an animal that resembled a mule.

(To note, some of the reported cases of fertile mollies have turned out to be something else - molly mules are infertile but have normal maternal instincts and equines of all species are notorious for trying to steal other people's foals).

Four saddle mules picketed at Indian Garden in the Grand Canyon. This image doesn't give a good view of their size - the three larger mules are "Missouri mules" which are bred from Belgian mares and American Mammoth Jack stallions (the American Mammoth Jack is an extremely large donkey breed that is related to large donkey breeds found in Spain and France, all of which are perpetuated entirely to breed big mules). The smaller mule on the end is probably from a Quarter Horse mare. The brown and sorrel mules in the center each stand over 16 hands.

Mules are colored similarly to horses, but normally have extreme mealy/pangare, as seen on the sorrel mule. When they lack this, per the brown mule, it's so unusual there's a specific term for it - such mules are called "blue mules."

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why Do Horse People Worry So Much About Fire?

Visit most modern stables and you'll notice that there are extreme precautions being taken against fire. No good horseman smokes anywhere near the stable and any source of heat is guarded carefully.

The truth is that a lot of the stuff kept around horses is flammable. Hay can spontaneously combust (which is why most people have stopped using hay lofts), especially if it's damp or moldy. Grain dust can also catch fire, or even explode. Common forms of bedding - straw, wood shavings and paper - are also flammable.

So, if you need a place for a fire to start, the stables are often a good choice. Sadly, barn and stable fires often result in the death of animals - particularly horses, who are prone to panic.

Monday, October 20, 2014

How Does Branding Work?

In some parks, it's illegal to enter with horses (or mules) that don't carry your brand - this is so if the rangers find a loose animal they can return it to its owner. Horses that are run out on common range, throughout the world, are generally branded. Branding is also considered a deterrent to theft. Some equine registries, especially Warmbloods, brand horses to indicate that they have been approved for breeding.

There are two branding methods used on horses.

1. Hot branding or "traditional" branding, similar to the brands used on cattle. The brand is held against the skin just long enough to create a scar in the shape of the breeder's or owner's brand.

2. Freeze branding, cold branding or freeze marking involves using a branding iron that has been chilled. This method takes slightly longer and rather than causing a raised scar, it causes the hair to grow back white. (On grey or white horses, the brand is held on longer to permanently kill the hair follicles, but it's still much less visible. The BLM uses freeze marking on Mustangs and it's a popular means of permanent horse identification in Europe.

Some people argue that hot branding is considerably less humane than freeze marking. Hot branding proponents, however, point out that hot branding is over more quickly and it probably evens out. (Either way, I have never seen a horse suffer long lasting pain or trauma from being branded, using either method).

This Appaloosa mare belongs to wilderness outfitter Anchor D. Her brand can clearly be seen on the left side of her hindquarters.

Meanwhile, this Quarter Horse, known as "Hydi Q" has been freeze marked with her initials - likely as a deterrent to theft (Yes, horses do still get rustled, even in this day and age).

Friday, October 17, 2014

How Is A Horse Barn Or Stable Laid Out?

A lot of fantasy RPG supplements include stable layouts. How realistic are they?

As an example, the layout of the barn I ride at is fairly typical for a modern barn. It's designed with the indoor arena in the center, a common design in climates where you may not want to go outside. On either side is a stable "aisle" with stalls on the out side against the wall. At each end are rooms on the inside next to the arena. At the far end, they're stalls. At the end closest to the entrance you find a tack room. The barn has doors at either end of the aisle and also doors in the middle. Barns tend to have a lot of doors so you can evacuate quickly in case of fire. Next to each aisle door is a small room  that can be used for storage - one of these rooms is used to keep tools for maintaining the barn. On the left hand side of the entrance is a studio apartment with a bathroom, shower and kitchen (there's no hot water, however - the barn used to have a hot water boiler but it failed years ago and was never replaced because of fire concerned). The kitchen is used to store spare tack and to keep rugs in the winter, whilst the apartment is now a private office - I assume somebody lived there once, but no more. On the other side is the public office, the feed room, and men's and women's rest rooms. A private barn might only have one bathroom. Hay is kept outside in an old semi trailer, but the barn is equipped with hay lofts.

It's worth noting that hay lofts, often above the stalls, were normal in barn layouts until the last thirty years go, when we finally grasped that storing hay (which can spontaneously combust) in the same building you keep the horses in is a rather stupid idea.

Another common design is stalls around a courtyard with an outdoor arena to one side. In America, aisle barns of various sizes with stalls and a tack and feed room are usual for small private stables. In Britain, it's more common to have a row of stalls that open onto the yard, with an overhang.

So, what about Medieval stables?

Many don't survive - because they were converted to garages or housing when horses ceased to be a common means of transport. We do know that both the aisle and courtyard model were used. Taverns would probably have used the courtyard style. Also, many modern stables hold only riding horses - older stables would also have had a carriage house, which was often an open structure along one side of the courtyard, so that horses could be backed straight between the shafts, hooked up, and then pull out. Others were closed structures more like a modern garage.

If doing a scene in a stable bear in mind, then, that there are elements that would be present in a convenient configuration:

1. Stalls for horses, which might be box stalls (loose boxes in the UK) or standing stalls (tie stalls in the UK), positioned so that horses can easily be moved in and out, either by facing the outside of the building or by being along a broad aisle.

2. Some place to store carriages, vehicles or farm equipment, often open on one side to make it easier to maneuver things in and out.

3. A tack or harness room. In larger barns expect to find more than one. Saddles are heavy and nobody wants to carry them further than they need to. (As demonstrated many times in barns by people parking a horse right outside the tack room to unsaddle).

4. Some place to keep hay, traditionally a loft above the stalls. Some stables were designed with trap doors above a manger in each stall so a stable hand could just open the trapdoor and toss the hay down to the horse. Modern hay lofts have generally been removed from use and hay storage is generally removed to a separate building.

5. A feed room, which would contain solid feed "bins" - metal if the culture has it - designed to exclude rodents. Modern feed rooms often have a fridge to hold veterinary supplies and equine first aid kit.

6. In large barns, some kind of office, lounge, rec room, etc - some place for grooms to go take their breaks. Caring for horses often involves starting early, finishing late, but having long gaps with not much to do in the middle. Grooms might be found playing cards or shooting bull in some kind of room, and they might also have food there, although it would be carefully kept because of those rodents. (Oh, and expect a cat or two).

A horse in a box stall in an aisle barn. Note that the walls of the stall stop well before the barn's high ceiling and that they turn into bars at about four feet. This is a normal design for aisle barns - horses like a lot of air circulation.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Why Does That Horse Have White Spots On Its Back?

There are quite a few things that can cause white spots - but it's sadly common to see riding horses with white spots or marks where the saddle goes, normally on or on either side of the spine.

If a horse is injured, it is common for hair over the injury to grow back white (This is how freeze or cold branding, which I'll talk about in another post, works). White spots in the saddle area are generally a sign that at some point in that horse's life somebody used a saddle on it that didn't fit, resulting in "saddle sores" - bald patches worn by the saddle rubbing. Saddle sores and girth galls can also be caused by tack or equipment that hasn't been properly cleaned.

I've even seen one horse with saddle sores so bad the hair never grew back at all. Needless to say, he also had some issues about being tacked up.

Saddle sores are prevented by keeping equipment clean, always using tack that fits well and checking the horse for the beginning of a sore spot regularly (usually when grooming - this is one reason good horse people groom before and after riding).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Is "Bronc Busting" Cruel?

I see this question asked a lot. Rodeo bronc busting or bronc riding has become highly controversial, in part due to its origins.

In the old days, cowboys didn't have much time to break a horse, so they would do so by the simple expedient of getting on, letting it buck them off, getting back on and repeating it until the horse realized it wasn't going to get them to give up. Like so much else from the old west, this became a competition. Cowboys would compete to see who could stay on a crazy bucking horse the longest.

Modern bronc riding is rather formalized. A ride lasts eight seconds, and it's split into two divisions - with or without a saddle. Cowboys who sit out the entire eight seconds are then judged by their style, most especially the fact that they're required to keep their spurs on the horse's shoulders. The horse is also scored.

This last is one of the reasons that a lot of people think bronc riding is inherently cruel. I'm going to go through the listed reasons one by one.

1. They're spurring the horses hard. In fact, the requirement to keep the legs forward and the spurs on is designed to...make it harder to stay on. There are strict rules about the kind of spurs that can be used and if you look at broncs, it's rare to see white marks on the shoulder or neck - when a horse is injured and scars, the fur often grows back white.

2. The horses only buck because they're annoyed into it by the flank strap. That's not true. These horses want to buck. Bucking is a natural reflex for a horse when a predator (and humans are predator) unexpectedly jumps on his or her back. We've mostly bred this reflex out of domestic horses. Broncs are chosen from the subset of horses that haven't lost it. The flank strap changes how they buck - it makes them kick out straighter, which prevents the horse from doing a twisting buck to the side which can be easier to sit, but can also result in a more dangerous fall. It does not touch their genitals or put pressure on their kidneys. Broncs are chosen for their desire to buck. If you put a flank strap on the average riding horse, it will buck a couple of times and possibly take off running, but it won't perform the wild, aggressive maneuvers of a true bronc. The flank strap also does signal to the bronc that it's time to do his or her job, just as a rein tells an animal to turn.

3. They use cattle prods. The use of cattle prods to get a horse out of the chute is very rare. It's banned by most rodeos, but is still occasionally used by some contractors. Once a horse has had to be prodded once, they are generally retired - a good bronc doesn't need that treatment, but one that has lost its edge might. A bronc that stops wanting to buck might be sent for breeding or even retrained as a riding horse. Many broncs, however, continue to perform into their twenties (although the best mares are retired for breeding long before that).

4. These are wild horses that hate humans and thus shouldn't be made to perform. Nope. Broncs are specially bred horses, which can command prices of five or even six figures. They are carefully chosen for both the desire to buck and the athletic conformation to do it well - just the same as any other sport horse.

5. Broncs tend to get injured a lot. This is also simply not true. The only person taking a real risk of injury in a saddle or bareback bronc event is the cowboy. Although broncs do get injured, the rate is lower than in, say, eventing and much lower than in racing. The bucking motion may put some strain on their back, but no more than being ridden regularly (broncs are not used that often because the more you use them, the more likely they are to get "broke" and stop bucking).

(Image source: Joekoz451 via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Note that there are bad operators in every aspect of the horse industry and there undoubtedly are stock contractors out there who treat their bucking stock badly - but the sport itself is not inherently cruel.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What Is The Courbette?

In the courbette, the horse raises its forehand, tucks its forelegs then hops forward. It's another difficult task, with most horses only managing three or four hops before they have to touch down. (Some can manage more). A variant, the mezair, involves the horse striking out with its front legs - clearly an offensive maneuver - but it is seldom performed these days.

Mid hop, courtesy of Ludwig Koch.

Monday, October 13, 2014

What Is The Capriole?

The capriole is the most difficult of the airs above the ground - at the Spanish Riding School, only the very best horses perform it and then often without a rider.

The horse leaps off the ground and then kicks out with its back legs...if done correctly, at about head height. It's thus a maneuver used to attack an opponent approaching from behind.

The last of the Ludwig Koch pictures I found. Note that the horse's ears are pointed backwards, as one would expect if somebody was behind him.

Friday, October 10, 2014

What Is The Ballotade?

When the horse has learned the croupade, he then learns the ballotade. (Note that mares are seldom used in classical dressage and the different angle of their hips makes it harder for them to learn the airs above the ground.

It's basically the same thing as the croupade, but instead of keeping the hind hooves under him, he lifts them to point backwards.

Still using the Ludwig Koch pictures because they're awesome - note how the hooves point backwards.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

What Is The Croupade?

In the croupade, the horse leaps directly upwards, with its body parallel to the ground. This maneuver might be used to avoid an attack and is also a precursor to the far, far more difficult (and famous) capriole.

This Ludwig Koch painting (public domain) shows a horse performing the croupade. I'm struggling to tell whether the dark skinned man behind is a trainer with a whip or whether it's actually a sword he's holding.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What Is A Levade?

Still talking about Airs Above The Ground so they're all together.

The levade is one of the most difficult things you can ask a horse to do, physically.

This painting by Ludwig Koch shows a cavalry officer and horse performing the levade.

Unlike the pasade, where the horse rears at the natural angle for a horse rearing, the perfect angle for the levade is 45 degrees. So, why is it so hard?

Balancing in the levade requires amazing core strength on the part of the horse. Even the Spanish Riding School only has select horses do it - and some horses can never manage to learn it.

Look at this picture of Neapolitano Aga at the Spanish Riding School (source: David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons).

Notice the quite visible horizontal "line" behind the saddle that curves upwards as it approaches the groin.

That's the horse's abs. You don't see that kind of development on most riding horses.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What Is The Pesade?

I promised I'd talk about the "Airs Above The Ground" - so I will. The airs above the ground are not seen in modern dressage, but are retained by the classical school. There are seven different airs above the ground, all of which are based off of offensive or defensive cavalry maneuvers.

So I'm going to start with the pesade, which is the first of them a horse is taught.

The pesade is quite simply rearing on command, as shown here:

(Image source: Hackmann via Wikipedia Commons). The spectacular spotted horse is not an Appaloosa, but a Warmblood breed called the Knabstrupper.

Although it's not always called that, the pesade is often seen in trick riding and performed by movie horses. A fighting horse would be able to strike an opponent with the front hooves from this position. Or simply intimidate them into giving up.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What Is Dressage?

Dressage, ultimately, is a test of how well a horse is trained and how well it responds to its rider.

The name comes from the French verb "dresser," which literally means "to lift" and refers to the need of a ridden horse to lift its front end to compensate for the word of the rider. It is often, however, translated as "to train."

Dressage horses (except classical dressage, which is almost exclusively used purely for demonstration purposes these days) compete by doing a series of set movements called a dressage "test." There are different levels of test to show off the skill of horse and rider.

Four kinds of dressage exist:

1. Classical dressage, which is still performed by the Spanish Riding School, the French Cadre Noir, and a handful of other organizations. Classical dressage includes the "airs above the ground" - which I'll talk about in another post - and is based off of the training of a cavalry horse.

2. Modern dressage, which is an Olympic sport. The horse is ridden in the English style and performs tests which range from Introductory (where the horse is not even asked to canter) to Grand Prix, which includes maneuvers in which the horse goes sideways, trots in place and turns within its own length. Modern dressage includes freestyle (where the rider chooses the order of the movements and performs to music) and the pas de deux (where two horses and riders compete together in the arena).

3. Gaited dressage. Gaited dressage is a modified form of modern dressage which is designed for gaited horses. In gaited dressage, the horse performs some form of amble instead of the trot and the horse's way of going is judged by standards designed for gaited horses, who carry themselves differently.

4. Western dressage. Some western people have modified modern dressage for their own needs - which basically means judging horses by western standards of carriage and gait speed rather than English ones.

A high level dressage horse and rider performing the extended trot. Source: BS Thurner Hof via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Is It True That Horses Always Have At Least One Hoof On The Ground?

Courtesy of tumblr user norvicensiandoran.


Horses do not always have at least one hoof on the ground when moving or running (and obviously not when jumping).

At the walk, yes, a horse always has at least one hoof on the ground, but the other gaits - trot, canter, and gallop all contain what we call the "moment of suspension" - a point in the stride when all four hooves are off the ground.

The speed of a racing trot shows the moment of suspension clearly (the back hoof is a bit hard to see as its between the sulky wheels. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons).

This appaloosa is cantering and again caught in the "moment of suspension."

The existence of the moment of suspension of the trot was first documented in 1872 (when photography started to become more useful). Until then, it was only suspected.

The pace also has a moment of suspension. However, in all of the variants on the running walk, amble or foxtrot, there is no moment of suspension - which is part of why gaited horses are so comfortable over long distances.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Do Horses Often Have Twins?


The horse, unlike the sheep or goat, is designed to produce one offspring at a time. Twinning does occur, but it's generally considered a very bad thing. The most common outcome is for only one of the foals to survive until birth, but it's not at all uncommon to lose both foals - and sometimes the mare as well. The chances of both surviving and being healthy? About 1 in 10,000 - and even then, they tend to be smaller and weaker than singleton foals.

Because of this, with modern technology, "reduction" is normally performed - this first happened in the 1980s but only became common in 2006. An ultrasound can detect the twin pregnancy, and then reduction is performed at the same time - it's also called "pinching" the extra foal. They always try to reduce the smaller of the fetuses. If a reduction isn't possible it's not uncommon to just use an abortion drug and try again. (And if a reduction is done incorrectly, you can end up losing both foals. Drugs are given to the mare afterwards to help her hold on to the remaining fetus).

Before these techniques were available, though, a twin pregnancy was a horse breeder's dread because of the major complications that ensued. Twinning is more common in mares that have their first foal when older, and some mares are prone to it.

There are, incidentally, numerous reported incidents of mares raising and nursing multiple foals, including spontaneous adoption of orphans within the same herd. So if you see a horse with "twins" it's likely one of them is not biologically hers.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What Is Steeplechasing?

Steeplechasing was invented in Ireland and is so called because riders would race across country, as straight as possible, from one church steeple to another.

The term has now been formalized to refer to fairly short distance races that are run over obstacles. In Europe, all steeplechases are run over brush fences on an enclosed track, although ditches and water are common. In America, steeplechases are run on open courses over solid timber fences.

Point to pointing is used in Britain and Ireland to refer to amateur steeplechases in which the horses are required to be actively used in foxhunting (these days, no foxes are involved).

Horses jump a water obstacle in an English steeplechase. Source: Paul Holloway via Wikimedia Commons.

The most famous steeplechase races include the English Grand National, the Maryland Hunt Cup and the Velka Pardubicka (considered the world's most dangerous horse race) in the Czech Republic.